How do psychologists study what life means to people?
Psychologists don't study "The Meaning Of Life" (cue portentious music). Instead, we study meaning in life...as in the meaning you find in your life. We don't know any more than anyone else why life is the way it is; whether the universe came into being for any particular reason; or whether you, me, or the person down the street is here on Earth for any higher purpose.
What we look at is the meaning all of us create in our own lives. We've learned a lot about this meaning making we engage in, and in this column I will share with you some of the basics of what psychological science has revealed about living a meaningful life.
I have a tendency to unwillingly remember quasi-profound moments from mediocre movies. I'm not really sure where this uselessly persistent talent came from, but it is what it is. I remember one and only one thing about the movie "Revenge of the Nerds." The eponymous Nerds are pondering life's great mysteries late at night. For some reason, a football player named Ogre, not normally part of the Nerd Herd, is with the Nerds, absorbed in the infinite depths of a clear, starry night. The Nerds are discussing the conundrums and paradoxes of astrophysics and Ogre, not to be outdone, poses this stumper, "What if C-A-T spelled dog?" Such questions, aimed at probing the deep truth of Life's Mysteries, generally are not interesting to psychologists. Or rather, I should say that the ultimate answers to these questions are not what we study when we study meaning in life. We are interested in the way each of you comes up with your own answer. Where did the universe come from? Which will get us first, the sun going nova or a million-to-one asteroid? Why does pain and loss seem inevitable in life? Is there a God? What if C-A-T spelled dog?
Psychologists don't have any authoritative answers. We aren't philosophers or theologians. We did not get into our line of work because we are obsessed with answering these questions. Instead, we got into this line of work because we are fascinated by how people strive to answer these questions, and what the implications are of the types of answers they come up with.
What is the meaning of life? I don't know. But I do know that if you think that your life has meaning, you are much more likely to be happy, healthy, and enjoy your life. The way I know is that for over four decades, psychologists have been asking people like you questions like, "do you feel that your life has a purpose?" Then we compare people who say yes to questions like that to those who say no to such questions and see if there are any differences.
In this way, we can measure meaning in life, and we can also see if there are any advantages to feeling that your life is meaningful. If you're interested in seeing first-hand how we measure meaning in life, you can go to my webpage at: http://michael.f.steger.googlepages.com. Look for the link under the heading "Participate in Research."
Through the use of such measures in dozens of studies, it has become clear that one of the pivotal feats we accomplish as human beings is to take the millions of bits of information constantly swarming around us and pull from them some coherent and interpretable reality. When that reality is seen as making sense, and our own small existence seems to have a point and matter in some way, then our lives feel meaningful, and we are on the road to flourishing.
So the real quesion is, What is the Meaning of Your Life?
© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All rights reserved.